Prominent Vietnamese climate campaigner jailed for tax evasion

Climate defenders call for Hoang Thi Minh Hong’s unconditional release after ‘total fraud’ conviction

Alisha Rahaman Sarkar
Thursday 28 September 2023 12:45 BST
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<p>Hoang Thi Minh Hong has been sentenced to three years in prison</p>

Hoang Thi Minh Hong has been sentenced to three years in prison

One of Vietnam's top climate activists was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of tax evasion on Thursday.

Hoang Thi Minh Hong is the fifth activist to be sentenced over graft charges, in what appears to be the communist government's crackdown on climate activists opposing Hanoi’s policies.

Ms Hong was convicted of tax evasion at a trial in Ho Chi Minh City that lasted half a day. She has been accused of dodging tax payments worth 6.7bn dong ($274,488) during the 2012-2022 period.

Ms Hong was the director of an environment advocacy group that she ran from 2013 till last year.

She was made to pay a fine of 100m dong ($4,098), her lawyer Nguyen Van Tu said, adding that she has 15 days to make a decision to appeal the verdict.

Ms Hong was the first Vietnamese to visit Antarctica in 1997 and was hailed by former president Barack Obama in 2018 for mobilising "a youth-led movement to create a greener world", Reuters reported.

"This conviction is a total fraud, nobody should be fooled by it," said Ben Swanton, co-director of The 88 Project charity.

He said that the conviction was yet another example of how the government weaponises the law to persecute climate activists. Climate activists tend to get harsher sentences than others who evade taxes in Vietnam, he added.

Ms Hong asked for leniency at the trial so that she could "return and continue to contribute to the society and the country", according to the Thanh Nien newspaper.

“If Vietnam is serious about tackling climate change, it must release all environmental activists, campaigners and experts from jail now," said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty's regional campaigns director.

“The international community must condemn this verdict and urge Vietnam to drop all criminal charges against environmental activists.”

The sentencing comes just days after Ngo Nhien, executive director of Vietnam Initiative for Energy Transition (VIETSE), was detained by the police on 15 September.

At the time of her arrest, she was working closely with the Vietnamese government in providing technical and policy advice for the development of the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP), the Vietnam Climate Defenders Coalition said in a statement.

The JETP is a $15.5bn agreement made between Vietnam and G7 nations to support the country's transition to renewable energy sources. The pact is aimed at helping the South Asian nation to bring forward the target year to peak its greenhouse gas to 2030, from a previous 2035 projection.

Ms Nhien is held without charges and the government is yet to officially announce her arrest, the rights group alleged.

"We are aware of the arrest and are following the developments with concern," Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesperson for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said.

"Vietnam is already in violation of the 'just' aspect of the JETP while civil society is severely constrained in its ability to participate," said Maureen Harris, senior advisor for International Rivers and a coordinator of the Vietnam Climate Defenders Coalition.

"This latest arrest creates a chilling effect for anyone involved in the development of the JETP, as it signals that no independent voices in energy policy are safe."

There is mounting pressure on the Western countries, especially the US to condemn the arrests in the wake of Joe Biden's historic visit to Vietnam, where the two nations reportedly discussed protection of human rights.

Mr Biden left Vietnam on 11 September after having upgraded diplomatic relations and sealed multiple deals with Hanoi's leaders, drawing criticism from rights groups who accused him of sidelining issues of human rights.

Washington had previously raised concerns over the sentencing of environmentalist Nguy Thi Khanh in June last year, calling on the government to release her.

Ms Khanh was among the five climate activists – Hoang Thi Minh Hong, Dang Dinh Bach, Mai Phan Loi, and Bach Hung Duong – jailed on what critics call "trumped up charges".

As of early this month, Vietnam was holding at least 159 political prisoners and was detaining 22 others pending trial, according to Human Rights Watch.

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